My friend Sean recently wrote a piece called Heartbreak Empire in which he discusses the biblical narrative as a critique of Empire Building. My comment on his post was getting a little lengthy and so I decided to post it on my own blog instead.
Thanks once again for a thought provoking and well written post Sean.
You reveal a critical aspect of the biblical story – God’s disapproval of Empire – and I fully agree!
In all its’ horrid manifestations Empire is always opposed to the Kingdom of God. I do find myself wondering though whether we at times conflate Empire and Institution when we speak about the church. I think we all know what we mean when we criticize the institutional church. But I also think that sometimes our meaning is lost on those who operate in and minster out of healthy institution. I’ve been feeling led recently to write something of a flipside view of church as institution.
I say this because in a sense institution is simply another word for organization, association, society and the like. In this sense it is nothing but the visible manifestation of people organized around a common goal or mission. Therefore the church is naturally institutional. In fact human beings are naturally institutional since the opposite of institution is generally anarchy or at the very least disorganization.
Institution can be many things, amongst others it can be organic, healthy, holistic, love-centered, people-centered, edifying, self-sacrificing. But it can also be oppressive, power-hungry, corrupt, selfish, profit-centered, static or life-less.
While I also agree that the adoption of Christianity as state religion under Constantine had major implications for the direction the church took in subsequent generation. I also see a bit of a danger in overstating a romanticized version of the Church before Constantine and demonizing most of what followed as though there is no continuity between the church pre-Constantine and the church post-Constantine (Which I don’t think you necessarily do – but I think there is a danger there).
As you know, I’ve often been drawn to these kinds of black and white scenarios. But recently (in part through you and Chris) I’ve been trying to see things a little differently. When I was studying the Eastern Orthodox Church I was surprised to see how much continuity actually exists in the church when viewed through the writings of the Apostolic Church Fathers both before and after Constantine.
Many of the things we think occurred through Constantine were already established in the 1st and 2nd centuries. As you note in your post this is well within the “persecuted church” stage of history. I’m talking about things like, church governance with bishops, priests and deacons serving a special and unique role in the church, the setting out of clear theological boundaries against Gnosticism, Judaism, Ebionism and other heresies (and thereby the justification for continued boundary setting in subsequent centuries), the discussion of the new ‘apostolic writings’ and the stages leading to their acceptance as Holy Scripture at Nicea (the Canon was not officially closed until the Protestant Reformation).
Of course I also agree with you that in the writings I’m referring to these realities are in their infancy (though still clearly accepted by the church) and under Constantine and Rome they gradually became more and more solidified as the Church grew in size (and power) – which led to both good and bad consequences. Many of these growths however were the natural consequence of a growing institution. When things are small they are easier to manage and require less formal structure, but once Christianity had become as big as it did it required greater institutional management – which was neither all good, nor all bad.
I think the ‘Parable of the Wheat and Tares’ speaks powerfully to this reality. We should always remember that under Constantine, under the Roman Popes (even during the Middle Ages) and even in the Western Institutional Church today we have a mixing of Good and Bad that Jesus warns us we are incapable of uprooting. Not that we should say nothing when we see evil (or even just unhelpful) realities in the church, but that we should remember that our vision is limited and sometimes we may think we are seeing Tare when in reality it is Wheat (and vice versa).
I’ve written before on some of my concerns regarding the nature and consequences of the protest that happened during the Reformation. While others had “protested” corruption in the church before they had also remained a part of it and sought to change it from the inside. Jesus taught in the temple and synagogues and lived as a Jew under Judaism – even while criticizing many of the failings that had befallen the nation. Similarly Francis of Assisi, who I know you are quite familiar with, remained within the church and brought about positive changes without creating the schisms of the Protestant reformation. Often schism, even for good reason is due to a power-play on both sides of the split – just look at the East West Schism.
That said, it seems true that the realities of the reformation protest did not allow for change from within and simply could not be contained within the Catholic Church. But it also just goes to show that even within an institution as hierarchical and structured as the Roman Catholic one a Saint like Francis can exist and do mighty things for the Kingdom of God.
I may take up this theme in a future post, an examination of the good that has been done in and through the institutional church. Not as a defense of the institution over against the voices of criticism, but just a reminder to myself and others that the Church as an institution is unavoidable. What we want to avoid is bad institution, corrupt institution and this is what we usually mean when we speak of institutional church. But any time human beings act in an organized manner institution is created in the sense that is forms the skeleton around which we, as the muscles, blood, nerves, and skin, may operate. What we want to aim for is healthy and Spirit-led institution. Institution that is organic and life-giving.
I think we would all agree that the church as institution, both before Constantine and since, has never failed to have positive aspects – even if at times the negatives almost seem to outweigh the positives. It is easy to get caught up in the negative aspects of what the church has done and is doing – and at times this is needed – but in the long run I think we also need to remind ourselves of the good things the church has done and is doing as it shares the Light of Jesus with a world caught in darkness.
But just to reiterate, where I fully agree with you and the main point of your post is that God opposes empire, Jesus opposed empire and ultimately it seems that the meta-narrative of the bible really is a critique of human institution as Empire Building and the incompatibility of Empire with the Kingdom of God.
Six months ago I wrote a post about feeling like I’m living on a spiritual merry-go-round. Like I just keep encountering the same issues over and over again. Perhaps the problem is that I don’t hear so well and God needs to keep saying the same thing over and over and over.
Well, I’ve actually had some movement again and so I thought I’d post a bit of an update on the 5 issues I was exploring at the time of the original post.
1) Who is Jesus?
Check out my last post for the answer to this one. Suffice it to say that I think Jesus is exactly who the early church claimed he was. The incarnation of the Word of God. The Logos of God, born into the human race, fully God and fully man. Born to redeem mankind out of the hands of the evil one and reestablish humanity in relationship with the Father through the Son’s redeeming death and the work of the Holy Spirit in the body of Christ.
2) What is the Bible?
The Bible is a collection of various writings from key members of God’s adopted family. I believe God fully intended for the Bible to exist and to be used by his past, current and future children as they learn about the history of the people of God, the climactic birth, life and death of Israel’s (and the world’s) Messiah and Savior and the New Covenant established by Him.
While there are translation and interpretation issues in all Bible versions I no longer consider this an obstacle to the truth. I believe the Spirit of God can and will help every true seeker after the One and Only God to understand and rightly interpret everything that is vital to our relationship and salvation in Jesus Christ.
I think it is advantageous to read widely on difficult passages (both in terms of Bible translations and scholarly and pastoral interpretation) and seek God earnestly for answers to those issues that we struggle with.
I also think it is wise to always approach our interpretation with humility, as pride can easily blind us to our own faulty beliefs.
3) The Law and the Christian
After much prayer and reflection I am finally starting to let go of the issues raised by Messianic Judaism/Christianity. I still need to process some of this issue through writing but I’m starting to feel released from a legalistic desire to simply return to the letter of the law in the same way Israel lived before the New Covenant.
4) Is there really a Christian Mysticism
This issue has become one of the biggest life changers recently. I continued to question my motivation towards mysticism and began to see a sensate desire for experience that seemed akin to other unhealthy desires to feel a certain way.
In addition to this I encountered some disturbing realities linking various movements within contemporary Christianity that I have serious reservations about. In all these movements, mysticism and experience are the key components and seem to be the ties that bind the whole thing together. This has caused me to reconsider many movements and schools of thought that I had once felt quite at home in.
This issue needs its’ own post and so I will leave it at that for now.
5) Christian Apocalypticism
This one was on the bottom of the list and I’m actually only starting to re-explore it at the moment. In light of my previous issue on Christian Mysticism this last point has suddenly sprung to the front of my mind again.
I’m been very weary of jumping off the deep end with issues and yet I’m constantly finding myself up to my eyes in turbulent waters.
As far as this issue is concerned I find myself looking at it in two distinct ways. One way of looking at it is that we are standing on the precipice of greatness. While the world may look troubling on the surface there are some deep spiritual currents moving over the surface and the Spirit of God is hovering, ready to usher in the kingdom of God. If the church would just fix some of the problems of the past we could truly usher in the Millennium of Christ and establish the kingdom of God on earth.
The second way of looking at it (and the one I’ve usually considered more biblical) is that the world is not going to get any better and that the church is not going to get any better and that it is going to become progressively more difficult to remain true to the kingdom of God is a world that is doing all it can to destroy the gospel and the people of God.
Again in reference to the previous issue on mysticism, I’ve suddenly become very aware of the current trends in Christianity. A couple of years ago I thought mysticism very good and I felt like one of the few who saw the truth and really desired intimacy with God. Now I realize that the mystics are not the isolated visionaries, but rather they are becoming the staple stock of the new/emerging church. I light of this and many other issues I can simply say that I doubt what everybody thinks is the Truth and the Light is in fact going to turn out to be so in the end.
After a somewhat bumpy ride, which involved poring over digital and printed sources while laying all my concerns and struggles before my Heavenly Father, I feel I have found peace in my struggle with Jesus.
Of course I in no way mean that I now “fully understand Jesus” or that I have “conquered the mystery of Christ”, but simply that having wrestled with my issues over Jesus in the presence of God I have felt led to my current position. From here God may still take me much further or lead me down another road, but whatever the case, I know that it will be for my good and His Glory – Come What May!
For those of you who are interested I have recommitted myself to a Trinitarian understanding of God. While the Bible itself can be interpreted in various ways I think there is a danger in trying to view the text from a particular vantage point. By reading as a Unitarian I missed many of the clear markers of Jesus being more than just a man (even the perfect man).
N.T. Wright’s “The Challenge of Jesus”, together with the earliest Apostolic Fathers like Irenaeus and some help from other historical and theological sources, has left me firmly believing in the Incarnation of the Word of God who existed with and as God from eternity.
Where I may differ from other approaches to the Trinity is that I find myself in the Pre-Nicene understanding of the Trinity. Contrary to popular belief this is not the same understanding taught by the bulk of the Church today. The Eastern Orthodox position remains the most faithful and a number of individual Protestants and isolated churches are realizing this fact. This doesn’t mean that the rest of Eastern Orthodox theology is equally Apostolic (though they would like to argue otherwise) but I must with conscience side largely with them on this one – though I would rather say I side with the early church than with Eastern Orthodoxy.
A brief description of the position I now hold is as follows:
I believe that the Bible and Early Church taught the Monarchy of the Father and that the Father alone is the source of Deity. The Son and Spirit, while eternal and uncreated, derive their Divinity from the person of the Father.
The East has focused on the Unity of the Godhead as coming from the person of the Father while the West has focused on the Unity of the Godhead coming from the Essence or Substance of God. In a sense this makes God an eternal substance rather than an eternal person. I could say a little more about this but I direct you rather to some excellent scholarship on the matter.
For an easy read on the history of Trinitarian thought see, Christian History for Everyman.
For the Eastern Orthodox position as opposed to the Western (Filioque) position see, His Broken Body – The Filioque Controversy. This second link does much to describe some of the source of my struggle with the Trinity in the first place by describing the main differences between the logical outcome of Eastern and Western thought on the Trinity.
Finally I give you a Protestant description of the same issues with a slightly different conclusion but still wrestling with the same important dynamics. I include this perspective because it highlights the difficulties with the Calvinist/Reformed position and offers another Western position which I feel comes closer to the original view of the church (but still, in my opinion, falters on the filioque issue).
I wrote this as a reply to my friend Chris on his blog, Scarecrows in the Melon Patch. I’m posting it here because it expands on my thoughts from my previous post, clarifies some of my thinking and provides links to some sites that give much more detail than I can include here:
I completely agree with you that to go the route of purposefully rejecting clear biblical revelation is akin to spiritual suicide. I have no confidence in any secular, philosophical or mythological approach to the scriptures or their full revelation of God.
All that I am suggesting is that maybe (and I only say maybe because I’m still grappling with a lot of this) our understanding of Jesus could benefit from a reevaluation of who and what the messiah was and is. Our understanding of Jesus affects our understanding of the gospel & the nature of God and any misunderstanding of one effects all three. The position I am explaining is called Biblical Unitarianism or Christian Monotheism (This should not be confused with Universal Unitarianism – which teaches that everybody will be saved).
Biblical Unitarians believe in the full inerrancy of the scriptures and the need to maintain a strict biblical faith, which includes a belief in One God YHWH, His messiah Jesus, and our need for salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection. So I am not advocating an evolutionary approach or any other non-biblical model.
What I am saying is that by starting with the premise that Jesus is God we automatically read that understanding into the biblical text. For the last 2 or 3 months I have been listening to audio readings of the New Testament. When I started I decided to approach each section with an open mind, listening for a clear indication that Jesus was God, without reading my own assumptions into the passages. What I found consistently was that Jesus always refers back to the Father alone as God and so does Paul (even in Romans 1-3) and the other N.T writers.
There were a small handful of texts that I had to listen to a few times over as my mind automatically reverted to the old paradigm. After listening again and sometimes checking the Greek text and doing a little background study I am yet to find any conclusive evidence that Jesus is YHWH.
There are some passages (like John 1) that may suggest (though other interpretations can be suggested) Jesus pre-existed before being born. Even if this is true it doesn’t necessarily make him YHWH. It is well documented that Jews considered those aspect of reality, like the law, the messiah and the election of Israel to have existed “eternally” in the mind of God. In addition the bible also says that John the Baptist was sent from God and Jesus asks rhetorically whether John’s Baptism was from heaven or from men – neither of these mean that John or his baptism pre-existed in heaven before John was born.
In response to Jesus’ use of ἐγὼ εἰμι and the desire of the Jews to stone him I can say the following. I relooked at each case in which the texts describe the Pharisees, scribes, chief priests, lawyers, Sadducees and Jews wanting to kill, seize, or stone Jesus. I also looked at Jesus’ use of the aforementioned phrase. There is no significant connection between the use of the phrase and the attempts on his life. It is often used and usually translated as a self description without causing the Jews to attack him. Instead the attacks usually occur after another form of provocation which I will highlight hereafter. It is also clear that all translations are not equal; a short sampling will show what I mean:
In John 8:24 Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah and uses the term ἐγὼ εἰμι to identify himself as such. The ESV translates correctly and those that follow exhibit progressively more bias:
- “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” – English Standard Version (©2001)
- “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am [the one I claim to be], you will indeed die in your sins.” – New International Version (©1984)
- “That is why I said that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I Am who I claim to be, you will die in your sins.” – New Living Translation (©2007)
- “That is why I told you that you will die in your sins, for unless you believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.” International Standard Version (©2008)
Later in John 8:58 (still part of the same conversation in which the term is used three times and usually translated correctly twice), the majority of translations make no attempt to indicate that Jesus is still referring to himself as the Messiah and instead the reader is left with no other option but to think Jesus is referring to himself as I AM.
It is also interesting to note that in the Greek LXX the focus of God’s self-revelation in Exodus is not even really on the “I am” but on what follows ego eimi ho on, translated as, “I am The One Who Is.” (Ex. 3:14 NETS). As such Jesus’ use of the first part of the statement without the next is nowhere near the divine name of Exodus. The truth is that the messiah existed, whether physically or potentially in the mind of God way before Abraham was ever born. Therefore Abraham placed his hope in the coming of the messiah as did every other faithful God follower throughout the ages.
With regard to the Jews constant accusation of blasphemy, similar accusations are made numerous times throughout the bible (falsely and correctly) and not once is it used to indicate that the person is claiming to be God.
Rather, in every one of the accounts where they do try to kill or capture Jesus, he has done two key things. 1) He has openly denounced the religious leaders (and those who follow them) for their false spiritual system – going so far as to claim that they are the children of Satan. As such he is claiming that their so-called worship of YHWH is in fact false. 2) He also affirms his Divine appointment as Messiah, claiming direct authority from God in everything he says and does.
So in effect Jesus is saying: “I condemn you and because I have direct appointment and authority from God in all that I do – God condemns you.”
It is this outright condemnation of their entire false system (which the Pharisees, Sadducees and the like rule and propagate) that outrages them and creates in them the desire to kill Jesus. They accuse him of being possessed and he tells them that he represents God. They accuse him of blasphemy (dishonoring God) and he counters by telling them that they themselves are committing the unpardonable sin by declaring the work of God’s Holy Spirit to be the work of Satan – again condemning them.
They accuse him of blasphemy, not because he is claiming to be YHWH, but because the religious elite and those who follow them are claiming to represent YHWH and instead Jesus is telling everybody that they represent the devil.
During his trial they finally find two witnesses to accuse him of saying he will destroy the physical temple and rebuild it in 3 days – which they considered blasphemy (again being interpreted as dishonoring God – not claiming divinity). When he reaffirms that He makes those claims (though not their interpretation of the claims) as the Messiah and that they will see his power manifested when He is Seated at the Right hand of God they consider this enough evidence to have him killed.
As to Jesus not correcting their interpretation of his claims to deity, I think he does. In the first part of John 10 Jesus asserts his appointment by God as the only way to attain salvation. At the same time he denounces the religious elite as hired-hands who have forsaken the sheep. Additionally he affirms that this teaching and his authority come directly from the Father.
The next part of the chapter sees Jesus again denouncing the false spirituality rampant amongst the Jews and reasserting his right to judge by declaring that He and the Father are united in their mission – he and the Father are one. I don’t think this necessarily means they are one God – though this is usually the way we read it because of our preconceived ideas. [He later prays that his followers would be one with him and the Father in exactly the same way that he and the Father are One but we don’t take that to mean the Trinity will be growing in number].
When the Jews pick up stones to kill Jesus they say that he is claiming to be “a god”. Our English translations translate it “God” but this isn’t correct. Whenever the New Testament speaks about YHWH they use the Greek τὸν θεός (The God). Whenever they speak of gods (sometimes of men and also of heavenly beings) they simply use θεός (in its’ various forms), which is the case in John 10:33 and elsewhere.
This is clear from Jesus’ reply in which he says being called a god is no big deal since the scriptures themselves call men gods (but not The God). Jesus says he is the Son of God because he has been sanctified and sent into the world by the Father. He proves this by doing the works of the Father and shows that they are united in their mission.
31The Jews picked up stones again to stone Him. 32Jesus answered them, “I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?” 33The Jews answered Him, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God.” [a god]
34Jesus answered them, “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I SAID, YOU ARE GODS’? 35″If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), 36do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? 37″If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; 38but if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father.” 39Therefore they were seeking again to seize Him, and He eluded their grasp.
To conclude all of the above I would say that I’m still not convinced that the Messiah had to be YHWH. I’m open to him being YHWH but apart from always believing him to be I’m not finding the actual biblical evidence. I also re-examined messianic prophecies in the Old Testament. Not one of these prophecies indicate that the messiah would also be YHWH. Rather, if anything, they assert that the messiah would be a human being.
It was Greek philosophy that deemed it necessary for Jesus to be God in order to save us. But the bible itself never says this. Jesus substitutionary death is based on his obedience to God and his sinless life – not on his being divine. If I am incorrect on this it shouldn’t be too difficult to show that his divinity was a prerequisite for his ability to save – but I am yet to find this expressed in the text. Rather, I find that just as “by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection from the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” AND “There is one God and one mediator between God and men – the man Christ Jesus (emphasis mine from 1 Cor 15:21 and 1 Tim 2:5).
The last point to deal with is perhaps the reason we struggle more than anything with an alternative to the accepted understanding of Jesus. You allude to it when you say, “if it’s one giant colossal conspiracy cooked up by the… great Christian thinkers throughout history through whom Christianity has been ‘crafted’.” How do we deal with such a potential compromise of the biblical message without becoming cynical or disillusioned?
I suppose in a way it shouldn’t really surprise us. Protestants have long asserted that the early church went off track almost immediately after the death of the Apostles. My struggle to accept this fact is what drew me to Eastern Orthodoxy since I found it hard to believe that the church could apostatize so early in its’ history. But we already affirm this through our choice to disregard countless decisions of the historical church.
Consider for example that in addition to affirming the deity of Christ the Nicene council also promulgated 20 other doctrines for the entire church. The subsequent councils also promulgated volumes more. Yet we are convinced that most of these laws and doctrines are baseless and unbiblical but continue to stand by the decisions of these councils on matters of the Godhead. It seems to me that if we believe they were wrong about all these other matters they may have been just as wrong on such weighty issues as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – As Paul said, a little leaven leavens the whole lump.
While Jesus has been a central figure in my thoughts lately, this struggle is far from new. In fact I can clearly recall struggling with the concept of the Trinity even after I rejected traditional Christianity as a teenager of 16 or 17. You may wonder how it was that I struggled with the Trinity if I had rejected traditional Christianity. Thankfully I still continued to read the Bible. I didn’t understand it theologically and approached it with various biases. But I still found myself confronted with a being called God, with a man named Jesus and with “something” called the Holy Spirit.
At the time I was immersing myself in a spiritualized drug culture. I practiced the use of various narcotic substances as gateways to the spiritual realm – to direct contact with God and with divine revelation. The consequences were dire and I steadily began losing touch with reality.
I fully accepted that God was real and that there was only One God. You may be surprised to learn that I gleaned this truth, not from Judaism or Christianity but, from (seemingly polytheistic) Hinduism. With an entrenched belief in One God it was very difficult for me to understand Christianity’s claim that Jesus was God.
Of course Hinduism’s influence left me thoroughly pantheistic in my theology and I could therefore accept Jesus as an individual keenly aware of his own internal divinity. Perhaps the leading figure of some kind of sorcerer’s coven (there were 13 of them after all) which demonstrated their obvious connection to God through various healings and other miracles. I could not however accept him as the One and Only True God – not in a way that was radically different from my, or anyone else’s, ability to realize divine consciousness. After all, there was only One God, the God to whom Jesus prayed and from whom he received his power and purpose. To accept that Jesus was this same One God seemed illogical.
As a result of my drug use and steady decline into insanity I finally had a serious breakdown. Thanks be to God the experience left me much saner, rejecting drugs and eastern metaphysics, accepting salvation through Jesus Christ and returning to traditional Christianity. At the time I just took it for granted that the doctrine of the Trinity explained as much as we could know about God the Father, the Son of God and the Holy Spirit. I was happy simply trying to build relationship with God on the basis of my repentance and forgiveness in Jesus.
When I first encountered the Jesus of the Mormons and Jehovah’s witnesses I brushed him off without much consideration. I knew there were alternatives to the Christian religion and even alternative understandings of the Bible. I had already had about as much as my mind could handle of alternate views of the truth and I wasn’t really interested in disappearing down the rabbit-hole again. But I didn’t remain in that state for very long.
I’m a born researcher, I love reading and I have a deep desire to know! While I’m not sure how skilled I am as a teacher, I certainly have a passion for sharing what I learn with those around me. I think this was one of the main factors contributing to my desire to become a pastor. I had always believed that religious truth was more important than anything else and having now found the truth (or so I thought) I should spend my life sharing it with others. Bible College was a real eye opener.
During my time at college I realized just how muddy the waters of Christianity really are. Suddenly I wasn’t quite sure exactly what the truth was anymore. I, along with a few friends, found that our understanding of Christianity didn’t always line up with the mainstream. I found myself easily able to follow the arguments of different schools of thought and enter into their paradigms so as to understand what they believed and why. It often seemed that both sides of a conflict had really valid reasons for upholding their views and no easy way to determine who was right and who was wrong.
I clearly remember the first time, post-conversion, that I hit a major crisis regarding Jesus. I had taken a break from my studies and Nicky and I had decided to spend some time teaching English in Thailand while reflecting on our walk with God. While there I encountered the teachings of various messianic Christian groups. These groups held numerous positions contrary to the established views of traditional Christianity on topics such as, The Law, Grace and Works, the Sabbath, Jesus and God.
For the first time I actively engaged with Christians who held a radically different understanding of Jesus and the Father. The interaction was fueled by the fact that these Christians were acknowledging problems in the common teachings of Christianity that I had already noticed when I read my Bible. At the time the interaction left me feeling seriously unsettled and upset. I discussed some of the problems with friends and through their explanations and recommendations I brought an end to my inquiry and placed a few band-aids over the unresolved issues.
Recently however, in the Great Circle of Life, these band-aids have popped off again and without the unsettling and despair created by my first encounter with the subject I find myself once again struggling with the same issues. Central to this whole issue is the person of Jesus.
A number of weeks ago my friend Chris made the comment that he believes that “no matter what people have said about the canonization of the Bible, it is the one collection of ‘dissident’ books that cuts through the illusion and speaks plainly into our human reality.” I happen to think that to a large degree he is correct – However…
Issues of Translation and Interpretation (T&I) still stand. It was on the basis of the life of Jesus and the Apostles Interpretation of that life together with their interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures that they were able to preach Jesus as the Messiah. It was also issues of T&I that caused the separation of the Messianic community from the rest of Judaism, giving it its’ own identity. Later issues of T&I saw the newly established Way developing into Roman Catholicism. Very soon issues of T&I gave birth to Oriental Orthodoxy and later saw the division of the Roman West from the Orthodox East. It was issues of T&I that gave rise to the Protestant Reformation and these same issues have continued to birth new denominations, sects and cults right up to this very day.
The issue isn’t only related to how we as Christians, Bible students and pastors interpret scripture – it goes right to the root of Biblical translation itself. The reason I still agree with Chris though is that the core message of the Bible is clear –
There is One God who created the entire universe. He made mankind in His own Image and Likeness. Mankind fell away from God through sin and continues in this state. God established a plan to reconnect relationally with humanity. That plan was communicated prophetically to Adam and Eve from the very outset and as God’s direct reply to their sin and the corruption of Satan. The plan was then set into motion through various individuals and especially through the nation of Israel. It culminated in the birth of Jesus as the long prophesied Messiah who was conceived miraculously by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The result was a New Adam – a perfect man without sin. Unlike the first Adam the second Adam did not succumb to the temptations and deceits of the devil. His pure and untainted blood provided the sacrifice necessary to destroy sin and death. By accepting his sacrifice on our behalf we are covered by his holy blood and receive God’s Spirit to empower us to live holy and righteous lives. The Bible goes on to give guidance on what it means to live holy and righteous before God.
So what is my issue? My issue is this: Is Jesus God?
The source of my concern is two-fold. One is related to the Bible itself (hence my rant about interpretation) and the other is related to the documented history of pre-Nicene Christianity.
Every traditional Christian after the Nicene Council of 325 was forced by threat of excommunication, exile or death to believe that Jesus was God. It is usually asserted, without much research, that the council simply confirmed and dogmatized the historical and apostolic teachings about Jesus. It is very easy to simply believe this since all traditional Christians have been Trinitarian for at least the last 1700 years. But does that make it true? Did the council really just write down what was already preached by the majority of Christians from the time of the Apostles? I would argue that the theory isn’t as solid as it sounds.
Of course my queries would never have taken me to the history of the early church if I hadn’t already found in the Bible issues that seemed incompatible with the authorized view of the Trinity. I don’t understand how something that appears to be central to the theology of later Christianity needs to be gleaned from hints and suggestions rather than from plain and obvious statements.
On top of the fact that the Trinity, if it appears at all, is veiled and hidden (why?), the Biblical text gives numerous examples that appear to contradict the Trinity. While no clear Trinitarian theology can be found in the Bible the constant admonition that the Father alone is God is clear to anybody reading the text:
- “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
- “And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord:” (Mark 12:29)
- “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)
- “For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.” (1Corinthians 8:5-6)
- “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1Timothy 2:5)
- “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you. If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28)
- “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32)
- “Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” (John 20:17)
- “He who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall never go out of it: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from my God: and I will also write upon him my new name.” (Revelation 3:12)
- “But he (Stephen), being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55-56)
- “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (Colossians 1:15)
- “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.” (1 Corinthians 15:12-28)
- “I saw in the night visions, and, behold, [one] like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.” (Daniel 7:13)
From these and other texts it becomes clear that:
- Jesus prays to God. (John 17:1-3)
- Jesus has faith in God. (Hebrews 2:17,18, Hebrews 3:2)
- Jesus is a servant of God. (Acts 3:13)
- Jesus does not know things God knows. (Mark 13:32, Revelation 1:1)
- Jesus worships God. (John 4:22)
- Jesus has one who is God to him. (Revelation 3:12)
- Jesus is in subjection to God. (1 Corinthians 5:28)
- Jesus’ head is God. (1 Corinthians 11:1)
- Jesus has reverent submission, fear, of God. (Hebrews 5:7)
- Jesus is given lordship by God. (Acts 2:36)
- Jesus is exalted by God. (Acts 5:31)
- Jesus is made high priest by God. (Hebrews 5:10)
- Jesus is given authority by God. (Philippians 2:9)
- Jesus is given kingship by God. (Luke 1:32,33)
- Jesus is given judgment by God. (Acts 10:42)
- God raised [Jesus] from the dead”. (Acts 2:24, Romans 10.9, 1 Cor 15:15)
- Jesus is at the right hand of God. (Mark 16:19, Luke 22:69, Acts 2:33, Romans 8:34)
- Jesus is the one human mediator between the one God and man. (1 Tim 2:5)
- God put everything, except Himself, under Jesus. (1 Cor 15:24-28)
- Jesus did not think being “equal with God” should be grasped at. (Philippians 2:6)
Given the overwhelming evidence in contradiction to the authorized theology – of three eternal, divine, co-equal beings of one substance – the Trinity begins to seem a later development.
When you add this internal Biblical evidence to the historical evidence a clearer picture begins to emerge. The Jews were Monotheistic and while clearly understanding that God would save them through the Messiah, they never concluded that the Messiah would be God. Therefore the internal evidence of the Bible upholds this Jewish emphasis.
However, after the time of the apostles the church began to lose its’ Jewish mindset as the gospel went out to the gentile nations. The Son of God as Lord over All was originally a Jewish understanding of their perfect human Messiah given Lordship overall all of creation as the first fruits of the New Creation – but later through the influence of Greek philosophy we see this understanding abandoned in favor of God the Son as part of a Binatarian and then a Trinitarian Godhead.
The writings of the early church seem to show a gradual development in the theology of God. At first the Father is God and Jesus is Lord. But through such apologists as Justin Martyr we see the development of the Logos Christology (which Hellenizes the Jewish description of the Word/Plan/Mind of God in John 1:1 into a pre-existent Logos) in which Jesus is either a second God, a lesser God, a divine being of an angelic kind, or the personification of the Reason or Mind of God. These positions are known variously as Subordinationism, Binatarianism, Arianism, Adoptionism and other similar concepts. At this stage the Holy Spirit receives very little, if any, attention.
Later, especially at Alexandria Modalism becomes dominant and in other areas evidence of pure Trinitarianism becomes evident. Finally at the Nicene Council Binatarianism is codified and Trinitarianism becomes the upcoming and dominant Theology.
Naturally, without substantial Biblical evidence to support the new Trinitarian Theology, scribes began altering the text (Evidence of Trinitarian Corruptions of the Biblical Text). These corruptions are now widely acknowledged by almost all Trinitarian scholars. In addition to these corruptions a number of the writings of other early church fathers were corrupted, some of these corruptions are still used to try to support an earlier dating for Trinitarian theology.
Personally I have no desire to make Jesus anything other than God. It is what I’ve believed for the last 10 years and considering whether or not it is true is certainly no trivial matter.
That said, I want to make it clear that even if Jesus isn’t God in the same way that the Father is God it doesn’t mean that he suddenly becomes unimportant. The Bible may not teach a clear Divinity for Jesus but it does show him to be the pinnacle of human history and the means of salvation for all mankind. In addition, whether or not the Holy Spirit is a separate person from the Father or simply the Power and Energy of God in no way eliminates our need and reliance on the Power and Indwelling of the Spirit for daily Christian living.
In conclusion – these are my reflections given my current struggles and the information I’m dealing with at the moment. Who knows what I’ll learn tomorrow or the next day or a month or year from now. I’m really interested in dialoging with people on this one, so if any of this creates any sort of reaction in you lets chat. Perhaps you’ve got some insight that could help me understand all of this better.
One last thing – this study of Biblical Unitarianism (the belief in One God, the Father) has highlighted a couple of other interesting subjects for me that I may blog about in the months to come. Like the erroneous teachings about going to heaven when you die – nobody has! And the forgotten facts about Jesus’ central message concerning the coming of the Kingdom of God to earth (as in heaven) in the prophesied millennium.
Over the last few months I’ve spent most of my time investigating the claims and theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Well, that came to an end recently and I’ve begun to see this exploration with some outside clarity again.
Most of the posts on this blog are in praise of Orthodoxy and while doing the research I had been more or less convinced of the Churches arguments for historical credibility. But now, while I’m still pondering somewhat, I’ve begun to sense the holes in some of their claims. An old friend and a new friend have challenged me to reconsider what I know and to spend some time with the bible – both of which have left me doubting many of the Orthodox positions. In addition, I’ve come to some new insights regarding claims to historicity and the ease at which one can use history to support your claims (in the same way one can use the bible to support your particular theology).
I can’t tell you how many times I simply feel like I’m going round in circles. Just when I’m quite confident that I’ve left something in the past and moved on…I hit a wall and realize it’s all too familiar.
My hope is that rather than circles I’m moving in some kind of spiral and every time I re-encounter something I move towards greater depth of clarity regarding each issue. This is my hope…but I’m in no way sure that it’s the case. It’s equally possible that I’m simply stuck on a theological merry-go-round with no way to get off!
Through my recent critique of Orthodoxy I’ve bumped into some familiar “old friends” that I thought I’d laid to rest…but apparently they’d like me to spend some more time with them.
So what are some of these recurring themes that I keep slamming into?
1. Who is Jesus?
Are the ancient councils of the Roman Catholic Church really the only options regarding who Jesus is? If we believe that the Church of Rome corrupted so many apostolic doctrines and practices, why do we simply take it for granted that they were right about Jesus? Who were those early heretics that claimed the churches interpretation of Jesus was wrong – do we just accept that it was the correct one or have we actually given these other interpretations a fair hearing and understood why these men (and woman) disagree/d with the status quo.
2. What is the bible?
The best-selling book of all time! But how many of us really know the issues surrounding the book that we all hold so dear. Like the fact that most contemporary translations of the Old Testament are made using the Greek translation which differs from the Hebrew manuscripts. What does it mean for us that there are a total of 4 different categories of ancient New Testament manuscripts and that nobody agrees which ones actually match the original autographs of the New Testament. Do we really realize how much interpretation goes into translation and that it has serious consequences for our understanding of the bible’s teachings.
3. The Law and the Christian
Mainline Christianity has always taught that Christians don’t need to obey the Old Testament Law. The Catholic Church officially changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday (with no scriptural basis for doing so) and removed the second of the 10 commandments from their catechism (splitting the last commandment in two to retain the number 10). In recent years Messianic Christianity and other prophetic movements have claimed that the Catholic Church parted ways with the early church on this issue. They say that realizing that the Law cannot save us and discarding the Law are two very different things. What exactly did Jesus mean when he said that not a single “comma or full stop” would be removed from the law (except those parts that he fulfilled – like the abolishment of the sacrificial system) and that if we break the least commandment or teach others to do so we shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven. Should we be keeping the Sabbath and all the other Laws in the Old Testament?
4. Is there really a Christian Mysticism?
I loved mysticism and spiritual experience before I loved Jesus. And when I found out that Christianity had a mysticism I was immediately interested. At first it did concern me that the only places I would find this mysticism were in Catholicism or Orthodoxy, but my desire for experiencing God transcended my fears. It just had to be true, otherwise, why would I want it so badly. But recently I’ve been wondering what exactly it is that I’m after with my mysticism. Am I simply wanting to wallow in the energies of God because they make me feel good? Did I simply replace my one time drug addiction for a God addiction? Just what is the relationship between mysticism and my desire to feel good?
5. Christian Apocalypticism
No matter how you read it, the bible is an apocalyptic book. It is full of warnings, signs and prophecies relating to the end of time. I once held a very negative view of the world based on my understanding of the bible and its’ apocalyptic warnings. But the negative outlook became too much for me and I tried hard to see the world with different eyes – to have some hope that maybe the institutional church and the institutions of the world were not all as bad as the bible said they would be. My engagement with the theology of the emergent church and my exploration of Orthodoxy was part of my hope of finding some light in the church. But recently I’ve been challenged once again to stop looking at the world and the church with rose colored glasses and to accept the truth that I saw many years ago. Are we naïve to believe that there is still some hope left or are we just in denial about the true spiritual emptiness of the world around us?
Well, these are my current struggles and I’ll probably be writing more about them in the weeks to come – they’ve veered me quite far off the path of Eastern Orthodoxy and that’s okay. I simply pray for God’s grace to see the truth in a world that hates the truth and tries to extinguish the Light wherever it appears. May Your Word be a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.